Day of the Spoiler

Inside Joe Lieberman's Kamikaze Campaign

The listbot at, the commercial site whose clever software facilitates face-to-face gatherings between Web surfers of like interest, sent me a forlorn little e-mail the other day. "Congratulations on a successful National Lieberman in 2004 Meetup last week! See photos from every city," it read, giving a link. Click yourself, and you'll see the pathos: There ain't no photos.

That's not surprising. In Chicago, where I live, there wasn't any meetup. Not enough supporters RSVP'ed to trigger the software's automated threshold., in fact, has registered only 332 Joseph Lieberman fans in the entire United States of America, four in Chicago. An undercover reporter from The Village Voice—uh, me—represents one quarter of the total.

It could be considered comic, this abyss at the Lieberman grassroots. It could be, that is, if Lieberman showed any signs of going away. Instead, he's been ramping up: launching a splashy new tax plan; publishing a dowloadable campaign book, Leading With Integrity: A Fresh Start for America, and an accompanying website; kicking off a campaign tour—all just this past week. And that's not funny. Because it's not too early to predict that if the Democrats lose the presidential election next November, Lieberman will be the one to blame. That will certainly be so if he ends up becoming the nominee—in which case the Democratic Party will be left without an activist base. ("I'll vote for Joe Lieberman absentee from whatever country I move to if he wins the nomination," as one friend of mine puts it.) Perversely, it might even be worse for the Democratic Party if he fails.

illustration: Bob Dob

It works like this. He has already conceded Iowa, but let's suppose Lieberman doesn't do too poorly in the other early states, picking up some delegates here and there, perhaps even winning a primary, say one of the five on February 3, the week after New Hampshire, when his name recognition will help him because no one will have time to campaign in all these states. Thus emboldened, he campaigns harder—by intensifying his pattern of tearing down his opponents as dangerously liberal—and remains committed to staying in for the duration. Then, as his star fades, he'll have only one viable strategy left, a manic, all-or-nothing strategy: trying to convince Democrats that the front-runner must be dumped altogether, using the dark arts of opposition research, trying to dig up something purportedly embarrassing from the front-runner's past that the jubilant Republicans might even have missed if left to their own devices.

Lieberman still loses the nomination. But the successful nominee ends up, in a self- fulfilling prophecy, becoming just what the spoiler-candidate said he was: unelectable—as a man named George Bush effortlessly exploits the opposition research that a member of his own party has dug up. It has happened exactly this way before. Just ask Joe Lieberman's old friend Al Gore.

The year was 1987, an October much like this one, with a crowded Democratic field usefully united on many, if not most, issues, but for a single irritant: Al Gore, who, determined to distinguish himself from the field by a supposedly sage and mature moderate conservatism, stepped up to the microphone at the National Press Club and read his fellow Democratic candidates clear out of the United States of America. "The politics of retreat, complacency, and doubt may appeal to others," he said, "but it will not do for me or for my country." He had already bragged in a Des Moines debate about his support for the Reagan administration's position on the B-1 bomber and the MX missile, even on chemical weapons, accusing his opponents of being "against every weapons system that is suggested"; at the next forum, he lectured his fellows on the imperative of invading Grenada and supporting the Contras. For that, some Democratic insiders were whispering, was just what it would take to be electable.

And even though the message hardly took with voters—party conservatives had scheduled a cluster of Southern primaries early in 1988 specifically to favor a candidate like Gore, but the dead-fish Tennesseean still got skunked on "Super Tuesday" by the most liberal candidate, Jesse Jackson—Gore stuck around just long enough to run a vicious campaign in the late-inning New York primary, in which he grilled front-runner Michael Dukakis for his apparent support of "weekend passes for convicted criminals."

In Washington, opposition researchers for the Republican front-runner, George Herbert Walker Bush, were taking notes.

"I thought to myself, 'This is incredible,' " Bush staffer Jim Pinkerton recalled of Gore's tarring the Massachusetts prisoner furlough program as if it were the idea of Michael Dukakis, when in actuality the program had been initiated by the Republican governor who preceded him. "It totally fell into our lap." Dukakis emerged from the convention that nominated him with a 17-point lead. Then Gore's million-dollar lines, so self-consciously crafted to make himself "electable," began finding their way into George H.W. Bush's mouth. Bush was able to successfully paint Dukakis as a dangerous radical. Al Gore had provided the palette—his smears having had nearly a year to sink into the American psyche.

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